Just before Russian figure-skating pair Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov took the ice in last night’s free-skate event, NBC cut to a short package about the gold-medal favorites (and eventual gold medalists). After a few moments’ worth of practice footage and behind-the-scenes stories from the four years the pair has been skating together, NBC’s reporter asked Trankov and Volosozhar the inevitable question: Is the palpable, sensual chemistry they exude on the ice based in real-life romance?
Given the unique talent, rare achievements, and all-consuming dedication of these two world-class athletes, it’s obviously somewhat silly for a reporter to push past the discussion of their professional accomplishments and instead ask about love lives. But the modern Olympics, whether we like it or not, have become an opportunity for viewers to get to know elite athletes by proxy, to feel like they’re rooting for their friends-once-removed. It’s only natural to want to know what kind of love drives a champion to succeed at the Games—in this case, whether it’s love of sport, love of country, or love of teammate.
Listening to the reporter's paraphrasing during the segment, you might get the impression that the Volosozhar and Trankov are simply elusive or private about the status of their relationship off the ice; they'd effectively skirted the issue for some time now, the reporter summarized. But Volosozhar and Trankov's assessment of whether they’re a couple was both direct and quietly astonishing: They are, sort of.
Trankov explained that yes, there was certainly something romantic between himself and Volosozhar. It might be awkward, he remarked, if one of them started seriously dating another person. But they aren’t necessarily a couple. Rather, he clarified, they’re “more like a family.”
“A sports family,” Volosozhar added. They left it at that. As the tape rolled on, Volosozhar introduced a Pomeranian to the camera, noting that it was “their” dog—theirs, as in hers and Trankov’s.
Deadspin’s comprehensive story on relationships between this year’s Olympic figure-skating pairs, titled “Are They Humping?,” lists Trankov and Volosozhar’s status as “Unconfirmed, but PROBABLY.” As author Lucy Madison puts it,
According to a Russian article translated very dubiously into English by Google, they enjoy a "platonic love" that includes vacationing together and generally spending most of their free time with one another.
Madison also points to an affectionate Instagram photo of the two, and after they finished their gold medal-winning performance in the pairs free skate, cameras zoomed in on Trankov kissing Volosozhar’s forehead and wiping a tear away from her cheek.
It’s unclear, of course, what the details are in Volosozhar and Trankov’s relationship—whether there’s some intriguing reason they can’t or don’t call themselves a couple, or it’s simply an open-ended, mutually-fond-but-not-committed setup, or something else entirely. But what the sweethearts of the Olympics announced to the American public last night sounded a lot like an “It’s complicated,” in Facebook terms, or perhaps even a “friends with benefits.” (Or, as Volosozhar might put it, “family” with benefits. But that’s a phrase I never want to use ever.)
Tabloid culture frequently demands to know “are they or aren’t they,” and celebrities most often go with either “yes” or “no”—that is, either confirming or hastily denying to the press that they’re part of an item. In the last few weeks, for example, singer Austin Mahone told reporters that he and Selena Gomez are “just friends” and not a couple, a rep for actress Eva Mendes denied rumors that Mendes and Ryan Gosling had broken up, and Tyra Banks officially unveiled her new boyfriend in an exclusive interview with Access Hollywood. Rarely, if ever, do public figures respond that “we are, but it’s casual,” or “yes, but it’s not exclusive,” or “not really, but we’ve been hooking up now and again.” The various states of being that lie somewhere on the spectrum between fully single and fully off the market, it seems, are generally to be glossed over or kept quiet.
Which is what makes Volosozhar and Trankov’s candid revelation so unusual—and, in a way, so heartening. This week, in the interest of avoiding Valentine’s Day awkwardness both public and private, members of undefined romantic pairings everywhere will suddenly feel pressured to have that necessary conversation about “what we’re doing” or “where this is going” or “what I should refer to you as.” Casual, flexible, and undefined relationships have been the centerpiece of an impassioned national conversation in the last few years, too. Many a think piece has been written about both the harmful and empowering side effects of a new sexual culture that’s inclusive of concepts like the "long-term hookup buddy" and the “non-boyfriend.” Recent movies like That Awkward Moment and About Last Night are part of a growing canon of stories about the anxieties of kinda-togetherness.
Last night, Trankov and Volosozhar reminded us, quite charmingly, that not every romance has to fit into the binary of “are they or aren’t they.” All relationships are complex, and some defy easy categorization—and according to the two gold medalists, it’s OK to say so. Even on national television.